INDULGE IN AN AUTHENTIC RYOKAN EXPERIENCE IN SYDNEY

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Much like how younger generations of Aussies grew up watching Pokemon in the late 1990s and early 2000s, kids in the 1960s were crazy about the Japanese TV drama series, “Shintaro the Samurai”. Linda Evans, who runs a traditional Japanese ryokan in Sydney’s inner-west suburb of Balmain, was one of them.

Interview and words: Taro Moriya Photography: Naoto Ijichi

jStyle: What got you interested in traditional Japanese culture at the start?

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Linda: We grew up watching “Shintaro the Samurai”. Influenced by the TV series, kids those days loved playing samurai and ninja, playing with imitation swords and papermade throwing knives (shuriken) and so on. Our generation of Aussies all remember “Shintaro” in the good old days. Apparently, when the actor who played Shintaro came to Australia, he was welcomed by more than 7,000 fans at Melbourne Airport. That was more than the number Beatles fans who came to the airport when they visited! Interestingly, the TV series doesn’t seem to be as popular in Japan. Whenever I talk about “Shintaro” to Japanese people of my generation, no one ever remembers it. Wooden houses, paper doors, samurai and ninja clothes, swords, shuriken… Everything in Shintaro’s world was totally exotic and a great culture shock to us. That was the beginning of my interest in Japanese culture.

jStyle: What inspired you to build an authentic ryokan in Sydney?

Linda: My love for Japanese culture as a child continued through to adulthood. My first trip to Japan was finally made possible in 2001. We decided to take a family trip there and stay at an authentic ryokan. The most amazing experience in the Japanese ryokan was their exceptionally warm hospitality. Since then, we have been obsessed with traditional Japanese culture and we have travelled to Japan seven times thereafter. It was then that I started to think about introducing world-class Japanese hospitality to Australia, and I came up with the idea of building a Japanese-style ryokan at home. Utilising our fifth generation home in Balmain, I was determined to start a new life by renovating the house and turning it into a ryokan. “If I am going to do it, I do not want it to be semi-Western and semi-Japanese styled. I will aim for an ultra-authentic Japanese style,” that was what I thought.

jStyle: It must have been a very difficult task to build a completely authentic Japanese house in Australia. How did you make it possible?

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Linda: The building was an early colonial style sandstone house built in 1855. While the original sandstone structure and walls were preserved as historical legacy, everything else was recreated. The foyer, two guest rooms, and corridor were all converted into an authentic Japanese interior with black timber and mortar. A separate room became a bathroom with an imported Japanese bathtub. Tons of soil was removed from the garden, and turned into a tranquil Japanese garden with pond carp swimming around. I wanted to reproduce the Edo-period (1603-1868) style exterior, interior, furniture and garden. Although it was impossible to purchase 100% genuine Japanese building materials and furniture in Australia, I did not want to make something that people would feel is “unauthentic”. Based on the architect’s plans, my husband and I DIYed every little thing with a local carpenter. While we sourced local products as much as possible — paint, timber and building materials from Bunnings Warehouse and repairing Japanese antiques available in Sydney, for example — I imported things that were not available in Australia, such as the Japanese cypress bathtub. It took two years for development approval, and seven years for construction and renovations. It was finally finished, just one week before the opening in 2013.

WOODEN HOUSES, PAPER DOORS, SAMURAI AND NINJA CLOTHES, SWORDS, SHURIKEN… EVERYTHING IN SHINTARO’S WORLD WAS TOTALLY EXOTIC AND A GREAT CULTURE SHOCK TO US.

jStyle: How is business so far?

Linda: Gojyuan has attracted many local customers as well as overseas visitors who want to try something different. Not only customers who have stayed in Japanese ryokans, but also those who have never been to Japan. Other than providing Japaneselevel hospitality, which was my initial purpose, I have been conforming to accurate Edo-period details as much as possible. I am also adopting the Japanese manufacturing way of kaizen to improve our service quality as well. Along with a unique ryokan experience in Sydney, you may also enjoy kaiseki (traditional Japanese style degustation) dinner at an extra cost, if you book more than two weeks in advance. At Gojyuan, we are also working on introducing Japanese traditional culture to Australians. Our Japanese instructors are regularly holding workshops in various areas such as: tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, furoshiki (Japanese wrapping cloth), gift wrapping, mizuhiki (rice paper art), kimono dressing, temari (thread ball), shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine), Japanese pickles, Japanese sweets making and origami.

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FINDING A PLACE TO STAY IN JAPAN

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Words: Dennis Bott

BUDGET ACCOMMODATION OPTIONS

Whether you’re staying long or short-term, finding somewhere to stay in Japan can be a daunting challenge especially if you don’t speak the language and have just arrived.

Although I haven’t tried it myself, Airbnb, where people rent out their rooms and apartments, seems to be a popular choice nowadays. It’s usually cheaper than most hotels and depending on the option you choose, you could have an entire apartment where you can cook, use wireless internet and perhaps even get some travel advice from your hosts.

Another website called couchsurfing.com connects you with hosts around the world on the condition that you also offer your place to other couchsurfers. This can be a great way to connect with other travellers and organise trips together and basically allows you to stay for free, anywhere.

THE PROS AND CONS OF HOSTEL LIFE

Then, of course, there are hostels. Hostels also offer the ability to cook, but can often be noisy and sometimes rough or dirty. You also have to be careful about having your things stolen if you’re staying in a room with several strangers. On the positive side, they’re also a great place to meet people and can be really memorable experiences. I once stayed in a really ratty hostel in Kyoto with about eight people in one room. People came in at all hours of the night and we all had to sleep in bunk beds. But I’ve also stayed in some really nice ones as well, so make sure you do your research and read the reviews.

BEST OPTION FOR LONG TERM STAYS

For those looking at a long-term stay, a guesthouse is probably the best option. There are several companies in Japan with Englishspeaking staff and websites where you can book a room by the month ahead of your arrival. There’s a deposit of 20,000 to 30,000 yen, but you get most of it back when you leave, as long as you don’t trash the room. The rooms are usually furnished with a bed with new sheets and a desk. The kitchen and bathrooms are shared with your housemates. I’ve actually lived in a guesthouse for the past two years. It’s convenient and it’s fun to meet the people from all over who come and go.

Another advantage is that a lot of guesthouses are conveniently located near big train stations so you can live relatively cheaply in a convenient area where rent would typically be very expensive. Paying rent is also easy because all the utilities are included in one price.

TRY A HOMESTAY FOR AN AUTHENTIC LOCAL EXPERIENCE

Another viable option is doing a homestay. I spent my first two months in Tokyo doing a homestay with a young couple who had two spare rooms. At first it was great having someone to talk to and dinner on the table every night. It was a great chance to see how Japanese people live and they organised a lot of activities every weekend. I would say that for a twoweek stay, a homestay would be perfect. Any longer than that, in my experience, seems to be wearing out your welcome. It became uncomfortable trying to be home on time for dinner and I always felt like I had to be careful about making noise or using the shower.

Homestays can also be quite expensive in the long term, but I would say it was a great experience for someone arriving in Japan for the first time.

OTHER ALTERNATIVES – RENT YOUR OWN APARTMENT

Finding your own apartment presents its own set of pitfalls and challenges. First of all, you’ll need a bank account. But in order to get a bank account, you need an identification card and, of course, to stay in Japan you need some type of visa. Even if you have a job lined up before you come, getting everything in order takes time, so I recommend staying in a guesthouse for a month or two so you can take your time to find a good apartment.

Most apartments in Japan require at least a two-year contract as well as up to the equivalent of one or two month’s rent or so in deposits and fees. Choosing the right apartment in Tokyo is usually a compromise between price, size or location. Rarely will you find a place that is ideal in all three. You have to decide what’s more important for you depending on your own budget. For me, living in a central convenient location, close to a station and my job is important, but I also don’t want to pay a lot for rent. So I decided to sacrifice on space and privacy by just staying in my guesthouse.

Basically, the further the apartment is away from a train station, (i.e. less convenient) the more spacious or cheaper it will be. Some people decide to live outside of Tokyo altogether and commute into the city to save money on rent. For me though, not having to ride the crowded morning trains and being able to ride my bike to work is worth the extra cost of living in the city. I’m also able to stop home for lunch or go back if I forget something and I don’t have to worry about catching the last train at night on the weekends.

A LITTLE PATIENCE AND PLANNING WILL PAY OFF

Hopefully, someone from your company or a friend will help you with the process at the realtor’s office. You might be shocked to hear that some or many of the landlords will reject you right off the bat simply because you’re a foreigner. The most common reason is that they don’t want to deal with the language barrier. Also, they’re worried you will have poor Japanese etiquette such as making too much noise or not disposing of your trash properly. Some foreigners also leave Japan suddenly without paying all of their last bills. Whatever the reason, this is one of the most frustrating parts about finding an apartment in Japan. However, they do seem to be more open if you tell them you can speak some Japanese.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you won’t have Internet for the first two or three weeks after you move into an apartment, while the telecommunications company changes the phone lines to your name. With proper research and planning, you may be able to shorten the waiting time by telling them ahead of time to get started on the process.

Make sure you budget ample time and money in your search for a place to stay. There are tons of options, and with a little planning and research, it doesn’t have to be a headache.

LIVE BEYOND THE ORDINAR

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Since opening in 1992, Sakura House and the Sakura Hotel and Hostel Tokyo have welcomed guests from more than 100 countries. Their new ‘vacation rental’ offering is a service for those seeking long-term stays, and is perfect for families, friends, couples and other group trips.

Vacation rental accommodation can be found in Tokyo and Kyoto, and in addition to having no check in or check out and other time limits common to hotels, there is no need to pay for advance securities such as key money or deposits, seek out guarantors, or pay other types of processing fees. English-language onsite support is also available, and if there is a vacancy, you can begin your stay on the same day you make your booking. All listings come with furniture and bedding, and everything you need during your stay. Simply turn up, suitcase in hand, and start your life in Japan.

HANDY LOCATIONS CLOSE TO TOURIST ATTRACTIONS

With three apartment buildings in the Shinjuku area and a listing in Nishi-Ojima in eastern Tokyo, all listings are close to shopping areas and public transport. A listing in Kyoto allows you to have the experience of staying in traditional Japanese accommodation.

FRIENDLY STAFF ARE ON HAND TO SUPPORT YOU DURING YOUR STAY

Multilingual staff are available to answer any questions you may have during your stay, making it a safe option for first-time visitors to Japan. Sakura House and the Sakura Hotel and Hostel also offer calligraphy and kimonowearing experiences throughout the year, providing a chance to experience Japan in a way no other accommodation can afford.

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